The Myanmar Jade Trade: Illegal, Dangerous, and Corrupt

On 21 November, nearly 90 jade miners were thought to be dead after a landslide in the northern Myanmar state of Kachin. Reports show miners were camped under a 5000 foot-high pile of waste soil when the deadly event occurred.[1] For two days, police slowly recovered more bodies from the rubble as death figures rose to above 100.

Image courtesy of Rom © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Rom © 2009, some rights reserved.

Events like this reflect not only the paucity of effective safety procedures but also the shady, exploitive nature of the jade industry in Myanmar. The sale of jade in 2014 was officially stated to be $3.4 billion.[2] Considering the GDP of Myanmar during the same period was $64 billion, jade could be written off as a nominal 5 per cent of the national economy. However, under closer observation, the industry is significantly larger and more complex than what it seems. Thanks to a report from Global Witness, an NGO focused on corruption and human rights abuses, a new estimate projects the industry is actually worth $31 billion.[3] This approximation takes into consideration the illegal black market of jade sales that connects corrupt plutocrats to buyers in China. The Myanmar Jade industry, while at first glance seemingly innocuous, is a complex commercial system of abuse woven by the interests of various actors at the local, national, and international levels.

Image courtesy of TUBS © 2009, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of TUBS © 2009, some rights reserved.

The local areas endowed with jade reserves experience the most detrimental effects from the industry. The Kachin State is located in the north of Myanmar and shares an eastern border with China. Local communities, like the city of Hpakant where the recent landslide occurred, have dealt with considerable public health issues related to the mining environment. Drug use is widespread amongst miners. Heroin and Yaba, a Burmese type of amphetamine, are routinely abused throughout mining communities. In an interview with Al Jazeera News, a recovering addict Aung Kyaw Moe said, “If [the mining boss] asked us to kill someone for drugs, we would have done it.”[4] The culture that has developed in these unregulated mining towns is extremely exploitive. Managers supply heroin in order to create dependent addicts while at the same time providing Yaba to increase the productivity and working hours of the miners. Because mine workers mostly consist of men, women must find alternative employment often in the business of prostitution. Also, the conditions at the mines are glaringly dangerous due to a lack of regulation and hazardously constructed dirt piles.

Health concerns are not the only issue on the local level. Myanmar is rampant with conflict between eight major ethnic groups. In the jade region, the Kachin ethnicity is violently represented by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).[5] The KIA has been fighting the Myanmar military for decades and is pivotally tied to the jade trade. The role of jade is that of the financer. Both the national government and the KIA vie for territorial control of jade mines, as its profit is crucial to purchasing equipment and recruiting personnel. The continuous violence is encouraged because of the immense value placed upon jade.

The majority of these problems originate at the national level. Roughly 100 of the largest mining companies in the northern region are owned by a group of 10 to 15 men.[6] These men, and others who run the black market trade, are connected to the military of Myanmar, known as the Tatmadaw. The Tatmadaw took dominant control in 1962 after a coup d’état and now holds 25 per cent of parliamentary seats due to a constitutional safeguard. In 2011, new democratic measures were put into place under the leadership of an ex-general Thein Sein. Despite these measures, the army still holds powerful influence within the nation. Individuals who curry the favour of the military dominate the jade market. Many of the mine owners are part of the military as well; this includes former military dictator Than Shwe, former top general in Kachin State Ohn Myint, and former ruling party General Secretary Maung Maung Thein. These men collect vast sums of untaxed and illegal profit. The result is an entrenched system of corruption that is perpetuated by well-connected men incentivized by astronomical profits.

The profits from jade are not redistributed into the local areas where extraction takes place. Instead, oligarchs are able to discreetly accumulate capital to use personally or finance military acquisition of more jade mines from the KIA. The result is a cycle in which the jade barons accumulate illegal wealth and further entrench their dominance in the trade through coercion.

Expanding beyond the local and national levels of analysis, the international role of China is vital in understanding the foundations of the jade trade. Chinese demand for jade is at an all-time high. Based off historical fascinations with the green gemstone, a recently-emerged Chinese elite is flooding the market with readily available cash for any jade producers. Top jade can sell for more money than gold; jade collector Meng Mingrong even said, “Jade has proven to be a better investment than real estate.”[7] Based on the international demand created by China, Burmese jade barons are relishing in high profits while the laboring poor are subjected to derelict living conditions.

While the picture painted thus far is grim, there is an opportunity for change. The recent elections on 9 November have resulted in an overwhelming victory for the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi. The NLD party would have to challenge the entrenched military power of the Tatmadaw in order to established greater transparency in the jade industry. Through cooperation with the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the NDL could gather support from its supporters, chiefly the United States, and change the current kleptocracy. However, this would require bringing to light the key military figures who stay hidden in the illicit trade. When Muhammadu Buhari won the presidential election in Nigeria, for instance, international observers championed his policy goals of reforming corruption. However, Buhari took nearly four months to appoint a new cabinet and diverge from the previous system of cronyism. When looking towards the future of Myanmar, the new change in government should not be considered an easy panacea for rampant corruption. The process towards change will be as onerous as it is unlikely.